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Jul 06, 2015
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Nightlife: Ernesto's Wine Bar
By Matt Berkley | Photos by Jonathan Gayman
Posted On: 07/01/2015   

Ernesto’s Wine Bar
2730 McNair Ave., St. Louis, 314.664.4511, ernestoswinebar.com

Luscious, deep pours of wine and generous shared plates are the standard at Ernesto’s Wine Bar, a Benton Park drinking and eating den with one of the city’s most intimate and secluded patios. This place is more than worthy of a spot on your date-night short list.

Ernesto’s is inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s travels and love for European style, rather than his hard-drinking ways. The cozy main room is all candlelight, wood and framed still shots of the famed writer in various poses – bellying up to a bar, crouched over a fresh kill on safari or relaxing in wrinkled shirtsleeves with a devilish little smirk.

The cocktail list includes a half-dozen or so randomly chosen – and, for the most part, overly sweet – concoctions such as a fig-infused Manhattan called a Fig-hattan or a spiced peach martini. The lone exception to the otherwise underwhelming cocktail menu is the superbly rich bacon bloody mary, which pairs a house mix with bacon-infused vodka. Thick and satisfying even down to the cubes, the only thing that may have made this cocktail better would have been a strip of crispy bacon itself rather than a skewered olive.

Ernesto’s hits a winning stride as a wine bar. Geared toward the casual wine drinker, Ernesto’s extensive but nonetheless manageable selection is broken down simply by varietals, then region. The menu is weighted slightly to reds and features a great deal more blends than you’d expect – not necessarily a bad thing and in keeping with its unpretentious and approachable feel. At $10, the Saint Cosme Cotes du Rhone is typical of the by-the-glass selections: high quality and smartly priced. The Saint Cosme avoids the fate of a lot of the wishy-washy, flat Cotes du Rhones I’ve had; this highly drinkable red delightfully hits you with a stream of dark berries and hints of spice and licorice. Bottles hover mostly in the $30 to $50 range. Three-glass wine flights such as the Rockin’ Reds, the Que Syrah Sirah or the Summer Whites are generously poured, and at $15 per flight, provide a nice variety and a bang for your buck.

The Rockin’ Red, which featured a bold trio of Ramsay Cabernet, Revelry Merlot and Composition Red Blend, were exquisite in helping wash down the signature Ernesto’s flatbread. It’s a savory-sweet slab of crispy doughy goodness dotted with creamy goat cheese, luscious little slices of figs and a healthy portion of prosciutto finished with a light sprinkling of greens and a drizzle of balsamic. Simple and straightforward, this was easily the best flatbread on the menu. The sauteed calamari was an appetizer special that has thankfully made its way to the regular menu. Made for sharing, this one is worth hoarding for yourself as a main. The gentle rings of calamari, sauteed rather than fried, swim in a bowl of chorizo tomato broth (ask your server for some bread to soak up the goodness) that blankets a bed of Parmesan polenta. It’s one of those rare dishes that make you happy just thinking about it.

Ernesto’s itself is casual chic – definitely a date-night and small-group crowd and focused on an older, more sophisticated and well-coined clientele. While the interior is a cozy little spot for those enamored with candlelight, the back patio is inviting. There’s a steady buzz of conversation from the dozen or so tables jammed with couples and friends, laughing, texting, sipping on bent cocktail straws and killing bottles of wine. Not a late-night joint by any means, it’s nonetheless a lively spot on weekends.

“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” Hemingway famously said. “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.” It’s impossible to know whether Hemingway would appreciate Ernesto’s. Given enough wine, I’m sure he would, but there are enough good things at this locale to ensure that you certainly will.

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